Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 1992, pp. 20-27.

Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise

By Jason Edward Kaufman

Among 19th-century America’s most successful landscape painters, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) stands apart as the principal painter of the American West. His grandiose tableaus of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Yosemite Valley satisfied the public’s curiosity about the Western tracts being added to the nation. Exhibited in theatrical one-work presentations, his colossal show pieces mesmerized crowds with exhilarating panoramas of snowy tors whose majesty rivaled the Alps’. These sublime paeans to the concept of Manifest Destiny brought the artist wealth and fame. But as the wilderness faded, so did Bierstadt’s reputation. He died a forgotten man.

Other than the 1972 show at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, there has been little chance to reexamine Bierstadt’s achievement. We now have that opportunity in a 75-work retrospective, “Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise,” organized by The Brooklyn Museum in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Linda S. Ferber, Chief Curator and Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum and Nancy K. Anderson, Assistant Curator of American Art at the National Gallery of Art, have assembled all the key works, many of which are specially cleaned, restored, or reframed for the occasion.

As a rags-to-riches American success saga, Bierstadt’s life is a compelling tale. He was born in 1830 in Solingen, Germany, to a Prussian cooper and his wife who emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when Albert was two. After teaching himself to draw he moved to Boston where he advertised as a drawing instructor and collaborated with a photographer in a magic lantern show that featured 15 x 17′ projections of “Splendid Views of America.” This enterprise appears to have sparked both Bierstadt’s love of North American scenery and his awareness of its commercial potential.

With his earnings, in Fall 1853 he set sail to Dusseldorf to acquire technical abilities at the renowned academy. The German art capital had attracted many Americans in recent years, including George Caleb Bingham, Eastman Johnson, Sanford Robinson Gifford, William Stanley Haseltine, and William Trost Richards, to name but a few. The Americans Worthington Whittredge and Emanuel Leutze adopted Bierstadt and shared studio space with him. In his autobiography, written when he was 90, Whittredge recalled Bierstadt’s arrival with a portfolio of drawings that were “absolutely bad.” That was soon to change.

Bierstadt’s studies in the Westphalian countryside evince astonishing progress. His Sunlight and Shadow: Study (1855) demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the play of light over the sun-dappled church courtyard. And an oil on paper such as Pioneers of the Woods (ca. 1855), which shows a pair of aging oak trees, has the tonal accuracy one would expect from an accomplished master. In the Summer of 1856, Bierstadt, Whittredge, Haseltine, and others made a sketching tour along the Rhine into Switzerland and through the Alps into northern Italy, then on to Rome. When he returned to New Bedford in late 1857, Bierstadt began work on Lake Lucerne (1858), his first large-scale panorama (6 x 10′), which he would submit to the National Academy of Design’s (NAD) Spring exhibition in New York. The April debut was greeted with critical kudos, and within weeks the 28-year-old gained honorary membership in the NAD, and by the end of the year had sold the painting to the Boston collector Alvin Adams for the considerable sum of $925.

This pivotal work bridging Bierstadt’s European and American periods was lost for more than a century until it turned up, still in its original gilt-wooden frame, in a Rhode Island estate sale just as the present exhibition was being prepared. It was donated to the National Gallery in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary, in time for the show’s Washington, D.C., venue. Though based on sketches from the Swiss tour, the topography is not exact. Compositional invention would remain key to Bierstadt’s art throughout his career, yet, his imagination was fed by the wonders of nature: he needed raw material and traveled widely in search of it. His first overland sketching trip to the Rockies was in 1859 with Frederick W. Lander’s wagon trail survey party to the Wind River in Nebraska-Wyoming Territory. Bierstadt was duly impressed with “the Italy of America,” as he dubbed the Colorado Rockies, and returned with dozens of oil sketches and stereopticon views of landscapes, and with assorted Indian artifacts he had collected.

Taking a studio in the now-legendary Tenth Street Studio Building alongside his Dusseldorf companions Leutze, Whittredge, Gifford, and Haseltine, Bierstadt promptly began showing Rocky Mountain subjects. Base of the Rocky Mountains (1860, whereabouts unknown) was immediately acclaimed in the NAD annual. But no critical reception could compare with the sensation being caused by the one-picture exhibitions of another Tenth Street resident, Frederic Edwin Church. Church had sold his 1857 canvas Niagara for $5,500, and his The Heart of the Andes (1859) realized $10,000, then a record for an American painting. Before Church could unveil his new work, Cotopaxi (1863), Bierstadt rushed to open a “Great Picture” show of his own in February. It was the beginning of a series of successes that would surpass even Church.

He relied on a formula: an admixture of foreground greenery descending onto a plain, often with water, with a scrim of dramatically lit peaks rising into an expressive cloudy sky. Art historian, Nicolai Cikovsky, notes, “His compositions are like the wide-angle views so characteristic of the stereoscope, in which the foreground is full of picturesque detail with a generalized rapid succession into distant space.” (Indeed, Bierstadt himself made stereographic images on the Lander expedition, and gave them to his two brothers, Charles and Edward, who published them in New Bedford.) Bierstadt’s compositional conceit was not his invention, as it had been employed by Claude Lorrain, J.M.W. Turner, and others. But he used it almost exclusively, coaxing a variety of moods from different meteorological conditions.

Like his predecessor, Bierstadt became a master at marketing his imagery. Following Church he mounted special presentations of “Great Pictures.” Before the opening he invited journalists into his studio to write progress reports. He charged admission and issued relatively inexpensive chromolithographs and engravings as souvenirs, and often sent the pictures on tour to several cities. Texts explained the subject matter and its significance for spectators who viewed the enormous cloth-draped paintings through tin tubes that enhanced the sense of immersion in the landscape. The audience was enthralled by dramatic spotlighting effects borrowed from contemporary forms of entertainment, such as the diorama and moving panorama. One puzzled spectator, believing Bierstadt’s painting was the opening scene of a panorama, asked when the thing was going to start moving. These displays combined education and exotic diversion. No wonder they were highly popular, and at a quarter-a-head earned a small fortune for the artists.

At ten feet in width, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863) exactly matched Church’s The Heart of the Andes. Bierstadt sent it on a six-city American tour then on to London and Paris. To enhance the 1864 showing at the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair in New York, he re-created an Indian village replete with live Indians. An accompanying brochure underlined the Manifest Destiny message: “Upon that very plain where an Indian village stands, a city, populated by our own descendants, may rise, and in its art galleries this picture may eventually find a resting place.”

For his second trip West, in 1863, Bierstadt brought along journalist Fitzhugh Ludlow, whose descriptive letters published in New York and San Francisco journals, and whose 1870 book, The Heart of the Continent, primed the market for Bierstadt’s visual renditions. They traveled the Oregon Trail through Nebraska Territory, then southwest to San Francisco where Bierstadt paid the $300 commutation fee to avoid service in the Civil War. It was probably the 1862 New York show of albumen silver prints by the San Francisco photographer, Carlton Watkins, that led them to spend seven weeks in the Yosemite Valley. Ludlow called Yosemite, “a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative Spirit had just been breathed.” Art historian Barbara Novak turns a lovely phrase when she likens the period’s artist-explorers to “curates of the natural church.”

They headed north to the Columbia River and Washington Territory before returning via Panama to New York where Bierstadt set about working up big studio pieces. Cho-looke, The Yosemite Fall (1864) includes a narrative vignette of his party’s campsite beneath the towering waterfall. In the foreground a painter’s box sits on a rock near sketches and a parasol, and a rifle rests on a stool, as if to emphasize the danger of the artist’s expedition. For the debut of the NAD’s new building he completed Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865), a flamboyant sunrise with post-apocalyptic overtones in the wake of the recently ended war. When the canvas was feared lost in an 1869 fire, Ambrose Bierce wrote: “It is with grim satisfaction that we record the destruction by fire of Bierstadt’s celebrated [Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California]. The painting has been a prolific parent of ten thousand abominations. We have had Yosemite in oils, in watercolor, in chalk and charcoal until in our very dreams we imagine ourselves falling from the summit of El Capitan or descending in spray from the Bridal Veil cataract. Besides, the picture has incited more unpleasant people to visit California than all our conspiring hotel keepers could compel to return….”

In 1865 Bierstadt sold his first smash hit, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, to James McHenry, an English railroad tycoon, for the then-enormous sum of $25,000. From that time on he went after the big fish: rich American and European businessmen and aristocrats. By his 35th birthday Bierstadt was a rich man. In Fall 1866 he married Rosalie Osborne, just divorced by Ludlow. He commenced construction of a monumental house and studio overlooking the Tappan Zee in Irving-on-Hudson, New York. Malkasten, as it was called, would have been a write-off under today’s tax law, for Bierstadt used it to entertain prospective clients. The studio was fitted out with box seats and a balcony for enhanced viewing of the works below.

Soon after his Lander’s Peak coup, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866), featuring a western peak christened after his bride-to-be, sold for $20,000 to another English railroad man, Thomas W. Kennard. Despite the moving leaflet printed for spectators — “To this [painting] may aptly be applied the epithet sublime” — the picture was unevenly received in New York. While some critics hailed the manufactured hyperbole of his scenes, others complained of their evident artifice.

Notwithstanding mixed reviews, in the late 1860s Bierstadt was turning down offers for $10,000 for his pictures. He cashed in again when New York financier Le Grand Lockwood commissioned a work, Bierstadt’s largest, for his Norwalk, Connecticut, mansion. Lockwood reportedly paid $25,000 for the 15-foot-wide behemoth The Domes of the Yosemite (1867). Mark Twain, writing in a San Francisco daily, disagreed with local critics’ condemnation, and found the picture “very beautiful–considerably more beautiful than the original.” He deemed the individual elements correctly rendered though the atmosphere was “altogether too gorgeous.” “It is more the atmosphere of Kingdom-Come than of California,” he concluded.

Knowing his works received unalloyed praise abroad, in spring 1867 Bierstadt and his wife embarked on a two-year honeymoon in Europe. In 1867 he personally presented to Queen Victoria his two great works, Rocky Mountains and A Storm in the Rockies. The following summer in London he hosted a dinner honoring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was attended by scores of English and American luminaries. That fall Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains was awarded the gold prize at the Royal Academy in Berlin, and when Mount Rosalie appeared in the Paris Salon the following year, Napoleon III made him chevalier of the Legion of Honor, possibly in response to a well-backed petition the painter submitted to the Empress.

Stateside the economy was in a slump. In 1869 Bierstadt managed to sell the panorama Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868) to Alvin Adams, owner of Lake Lucerne, for $15,000. But Le Grand Lockwood went bankrupt that year and three years later died. At his estate sale The Domes of the Yosemite, for which Lockwood had paid $25,000 five years earlier, sold for a mere $5,100. Taste was turning against the Dusseldorf school with which Bierstadt was associated. Such prominent critics as Clarence Cook and James Jackson Jarves, champions of J.M.W. Turner and George Innes, respectively, disparaged Bierstadt as an unimaginative, impersonal craftsman.

There were still patrons who regarded Bierstadt’s paintings as exciting publicity vehicles that effectively captured the West’s breathtaking splendor and economic potential. A good example is Donner Lake from the Summit (1873). It was commissioned by Collis P. Huntington, Vice President of the Central Pacific Railroad, to commemorate the railroad’s recent conquest of its most challenging geological obstacle: the pass in the Sierra Nevada that claimed the lives of the Donner party a few winters earlier. Huntington supposedly selected the view for Bierstadt who nevertheless executed what is essentially a wilderness scene. The only visible signs of the railroad are on the far right where a tiny thread of snow sheds clings to a cliff and a puff of smoke hovers from a train that has disappeared into a tunnel. Though Huntington was initially disappointed with the railroad’s minor role, he recognized the picture’s value as a promotion for the scenery available to passengers, and toured the painting to several cities before installing it in his San Francisco residence.

Having taken the newly completed transcontinental railroad to California in 1871, Bierstadt remained for more than two years touring the state in search of new wilderness motifs. He returned to Mariposa grove to paint the giant sequoias, making sketches for several later studio pieces, including The Great Trees (1876), exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Already Yosemite and other sites were drawing hundreds of tourists, and were no longer a novelty back East. Moreover, Americans were favoring the more intimate forms of expression practiced by the European Barbizon and Impressionist painters.

Bierstadt did his best to counter shifting aesthetic taste by means of diplomacy. In 1871 when Russian Grand Duke Alexis paid a visit, Bierstadt staged a buffalo hunt for his amusement, collecting for his efforts an award to the Russian Order of Saint Stanislaus. He busily campaigned for years for a commission to paint a pair of landscapes for the House Chamber of the Capitol. He finally won an allocation for a fraction of the amount he had demanded. When his friend Webb Hayes, President Hayes’ son, placed several Bierstadts in the White House, the painter tried, unsuccessfully, to get Congress to buy them. And when the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened, Bierstadt changed the name of a generic work in his studio from Mountain Lake to Mount Corcoran in order to convince the gallery’s founder to buy it.

But by 1880 Bierstadt and Church belonged to a past generation. With the stereograph increasingly encroaching on the landscapists’ territory, Bierstadt’s exaggerations were readily apparent. Of one Sierra Nevada scene a critic remarked, “Judging…by numerous photographs of this range…we doubt the scientific fidelity of Mr. Bierstadt’s landscape.” By the time Alvin Adams’ collection sold in Boston in 1882, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, which once brought $15,000, sold for $1,400, and Lake Lucerne fetched $3,375.

Beginning in the late 1870s Bierstadt often joined his wife in Nassau. Though he faced mounting financial difficulties that worsened when Malkasten burned in 1882, he continued to travel extensively. In summer of 1889 he made his last trip west, passing through Canada to Puget Sound, then took a steamer to Alaska. When his ship ran aground he recorded the hulk in the starkly tranquil Wreck of the Ancon in Loring Bay, Alaska. In 1893 Rosalie died after a long illness. He married the wealthy widower Mary Hicks Stewart, but could not get out of arrears. His artistic output during the final decade was negligible, he exhibited infrequently, and at age 72 he died.

In the catalogue (Hudson Hills Press) Ms. Ferber posits that Bierstadt’s decline was not so much a matter of taste, as a form of punishment visited on him by the art establishment in response to his prodigal lifestyle. Such wildly profitable modes of self-advancement as his “Great Picture” shows “were incompatible with…cherished notions of the artist as a priestly figure [in] a quasi-religious vocation free of worldly goals…. There can be little doubt,” says Ferber, “that discomfort (and indignation) at the idea of the artist as a business success colored, and even compromised, certain critical responses to Bierstadt’s genuine contribution as a painter.” Thus, in 1869 Jarves declared both Bierstadt and Church “bold and effective speculators in art on principles of trade, [but] emotionless, and soulless.” And by 1880, the critic S. G. W. Benjamin opined, “Mr. Bierstadt is naturally an artist of great ability and large resources, and might easily have maintained a reputation as such if he had not grafted on the sensationalism of Dusseldorf a greater ambition for notoriety and money than for success in pure art.”

Could Bierstadt’s success still be resented by the museum world? Notwithstanding the revival of interest in Western art in the United States over the past few decades, Bierstadt’s late work still rates second to his mid-career triumphs. As recently as 1960 The American Museum of Natural History allowed Bierstadt’s The Landing of Columbus (1892) to fall into such a state of ruin that it was discarded as worthless. And in 1990, The Brooklyn Museum auctioned off Moteratsch Glacier, Upper Engadine Valley Pontresina, a large-scale Swiss landscape painted in 1895, even as the current retrospective was being prepared. Curators would argue that the late work is “less interesting.”

Ms. Anderson claims Bierstadt failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing character of the American West. While Indians were being relocated to reservations, and telegraph lines and railroads were streaking across the continent, Bierstadt was still painting idylls. As the thirst for expansion deepened, such unrealistic visions were less and less resonant of American achievement, and consequently less appealing to expansionist patrons.

At the same time Ms. Anderson notes that, “In later years [Bierstadt] correctly perceived that, despite their voracious consumption of western resources and eager pursuit of industrial power, Americans were reluctant to give up the image of America as a pristine land divinely favored. In paintings that became visual sanctuaries (much the way national parks became literal sanctuaries), Bierstadt offered safe haven for the wilderness myth that lay at the heart of America’s definition of itself.” If Bierstadt’s late paintings enjoyed some limited approbation, says Ms. Anderson, it was because these fictional paintings were “ideal preserves of myth.”

One such fiction demonstrates that Bierstadt’s artistic energies and abilities outlived his reputation. His last Western colossus, The Last of the Buffalo (1888), made for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, has become one of the quintessential icons of the American West. Only a few hundred bison had survived America’s expansion, but Bierstadt played to preservationist concerns by showing a vast herd as had existed when only native Americans hunted the buffalo. To the right of center, an Indian’s white horse rears up with a look of horror as a buffalo gores his belly. The rider lances the beast in a picaresque move straight out of the bullring. Scattered bones litter the foreground stage reminding the viewer of the destruction of the herd ranging in the distance.

The American selection committee, headed by Bierstadt’s old friend Whittredge and including William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, and Augustus Saint Gaudens, rejected the work as unrepresentative of his best work. Bierstadt trumped them by exercising his privilege as a chevalier of the Legion of Honor to place work in the Paris Salon. Visitors to Paris could see his work after all, and the sympathetic newspaper coverage of the affair served Bierstadt well, for in 1890 it sold to the English millionaire Colonel John Thomas North for a reported $50,000.

If Bierstadt’s constant theme was the West, his abstract theme has to do with man’s humility before nature. In the standard works, the relationship between land and sky creates a tension between worldly and deific, and by extension, between man and Nature. The path of light is always important in this respect, for it enacts a battle between light and dark, piercing the clouds, streaking across the land, illuminating the shadows with spiritual, perhaps religious significance. The drama of light and shade would have been amplified when conducted in a dark room with gas lamps picking out highlights.

Nature overwhelms man as the paintings are intended to overwhelm the viewer. Almost invariably man-made subjects are shown at the mercy of nature. Mountains are poised to crash down on the tiny figures dotting the plains below, just as the wave curling ashore on a turquoise sea in Nassau snaps the mast of a wrecked boat with which nature has had her way. When he paints the “Grizzly Giant” sequoia the artist uses a canvas fully ten feet tall, and makes sure that the old tree dwarfs a figure, not just to establish scale, but to create a sense of awe.

If his pictures are sometimes dismissed today it is not in protest of his theme, but the way it is communicated. Bierstadt’s paintings are a kind of landscape equivalent for the slick academic machines created by 19th-century Salon painters. His adherence to a compositional formula diminishes the variety of his subject matter by making it conform to a mold. It also leads one to question the veracity of his imagery. He transformed nature into a glistening fairyland of barely inhabited verdant forests, emerald lakes and pools, and Olympian summits. One at a time they are captivating technicolor extravaganzas; seen together their contrivance is obvious and a little disconcerting.

Bierstadt’s plein-air landscape studies are more transporting than his full-blown studio machines. Devoid of the histrionics and staging of the latter, they have a more authentic feel. When in the field, the painter was just getting down the colors and relationships for later use. Here, as Novak says, he was “free to forget his public,” and the result is a more immediate image, less finely finished, but ultimately more accurate and credible. Take for example the dazzling Sunrise in the Sierras (c. 1872). Bierstadt adopts a masterfully economical technique for registering the orange highlights on the rocks. Though the crags are set between an uninterrupted slate-blue sky and a few abbreviated strokes of violet shadow, the precision of his sunlit effect creates a striking sense of actuality, one not always achieved in his full-scale studio pieces.

If Bierstadt did not so much break new artistic ground, neither did he cover it. He was not the first painter or photographer–or journalist for that matter–to offer far-Western scenery, but he was the first with adequate artistic talent and business acumen to make a Western picture worth a thousand words. Like Whittredge, Gifford, John Frederick Kensett, and others, Bierstadt sold smaller more bucolic paintings of Eastern themes and issued prints for the lower end of the market. But the limelight always fell on “Great Pictures.” There is no question that Bierstadt was a businessman. His ardent marketing catapulted his work to the zenith of his profession: thus, the title “Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise.” The show’s focus on Bierstadt’s careerism helps to locate his art in its 19th-century social and economic context. But to have placed his oeuvre more squarely in its contemporary European context and into the larger tradition of landscape would have been a greater service to his art. The work of 19th-century American painters remains undervalued and little known outside America, despite the fact that within their lifetimes the celebrity of many of these painters–Bierstadt included–was international. Since all of the pictures in “Art and Enterprise” are from American collections, it is especially sad that like the National Gallery’s great Church retrospective of 1990, this show will not travel abroad.

“Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise” continues at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. through February 2, 1992. It was seen earlier at The Brooklyn Museum and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco. The exhibition and catalogue (Hudson Hills Press) were underwritten with grants from the NEA, NEH, Henry Luce Foundation, Philip Morris Companies, Inc., and others.

Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic in New York, and former Senior Editor of The Journal of Art.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

This article appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Winter 1992, pp. 20-27.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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